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Review: New York Times gives `Devil May Care` luke warm review

28-May-2008 • Literary

007 Runs Full-Throttle Through a New Book - "Devil May Care" review by the New York Times.

It’s the big day: the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ian Fleming. Without Fleming, who died in 1964 at 56, we would never have had the debonair company of James Bond, the creative sadism of Goldfinger and Dr. No or the pet octopus named Octopussy. Without the benefit of Fleming, however, we’ve had Octopussy as a cinematic Bond Girl in 1983, part of a movie franchise that is miraculously resuscitated (most recently by Daniel Craig as Bond in “Casino Royale”) each time it falters, and a string of ersatz Bond books by fill-in writers. To this shaky bibliography we can now add “Devil May Care.”

Here’s what the new book’s title means: It means that the new book needed a title, and that everything else about it was an afterthought. Or so the book’s author, billed as “Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming,” makes it seem. Mr. Faulks-writing-as-Fleming does not fall short of the rest of Fleming’s posthumous output. Nor does he tinker with the series’s surefire recipe for success. What he delivers is a serviceable madeleine for Bond nostalgists and a decent replica of past Bond escapades. But if you didn’t pick up “Devil May Care” convinced that Bond was an enduring pop-cultural landmark, you would not come away with that conclusion.

Here’s how the big guy is nowadays: ennui-plagued, thrill-sated, slightly over the hill. Actually, the nowadays of “Devil May Care” seems to be 1967, based on news events cited casually during its story. Bond has spent some time in mothballs. When he stands before a mirror, his thoughts are dark. (“ ‘You’re tired,’ he said out loud. ‘You’re played out. Finished.’ ”) When he gambles in Monte Carlo, he does it with the blahs. When he broods, he remembers characters from the old Bond books to which Mr. Faulks-writing-as-Fleming obligatorily refers.

But one night in Rome, Bond (“in a simple woolen jacket, charcoal trousers and black loafers”) becomes more of a bon vivant. He spies Larissa Rossi, whose “breeding, youth and expensive hosiery” have the requisite snob appeal, and who seems willing to trade weak double-entendres with the old roué. (“On holiday alone?”

“Yes, I prefer it that way. I find one gets to see more sights.”)

Before much more can happen, Bond is summoned to London and put back in business.

Mr. Faulks (“Engleby,” “Birdsong,” “Charlotte Gray”) is known for a more literary style than the one displayed here. Then again, the plot devised for “Devil May Care” perhaps calls for writerly restraint. The villain on whom Bond is sicced is Julius Gorner, who can be identified by his sartorial style (light linen suits with lapel carnations), Baltic accent, monkey’s paw (hairy, with no opposable thumb — yes, you read that right) and hatred of Britain.

“To cut a long story short, he hated England because he felt it had laughed at him, and he decided to devote his life to destroying it,” Bond is told.

Who tells him? Scarlett Papava, the book’s not-quite-fabulously-named heroine. Larissa was actually Scarlett under an alias. And Scarlett tells James about her sister, Poppy, who is Gorner’s drug slave and must be rescued. Beyond these three women, who do not create as much confusion as the book wants them to, Bond’s boss, M, the familiar head of MI6, has also given him a mission. He must go to the Middle East to shut down Gorner’s drug empire before Gorner can use heroin as a political weapon.

“One day, Bond, I will make as many heroin addicts in Britain as Britain made in China,” Gorner gloats, with a further threat: “You’ll become the third world country you deserve to be.”

But heroin isn’t much of a visual stimulus, even if this otherwise atypically chaste Bond story finds a way to link drug manufacturing with nudity. And this is a novel that, if the sun still rises in the East, is headed for the screen. Thus “Devil May Care” also throws in the following eye candy: nukes, underwater adventure, an airborne shootout, tongues ripped out with pliers and the risqué pleasures of pre-ayatollah Tehran.

In addition, for reasons best known to Mr. Faulks, “Devil May Care” features an extended tennis match between Bond and Gorner. This sequence is persuasively written, to the extent that it shows that Mr. Faulks knows his way around a racket.

“Devil May Care” obeys the Bond series’s most fundamental command: keep the action coming fast and furious. So the latter part of the book is devoted to full-throttle pursuit, with enough collateral damage (“The Urals have lost a peak”) to show that Bond remains formidable.

If Mr. Faulks is less adventurous than his hero, and if he is mostly content to stick to the basic Bond blueprint, he may be doing precisely what was asked of him. When “Devil May Care” does strive for a literary tone, it winds up suggesting that other writers were better qualified for the job. Late in the book: “Bond breathed in deeply and looked back across the opulent hotel room at this woman in her black velvet dress, the force of her beauty checked only by the anguish in her eyes.”

At such moments there is a whiff of “Sebastian Faulks writing as Alan Furst” and not doing it with any great flair.

Sometimes Mr. Faulks does show off the wry humor that Bond’s stature and durability deserve. Everybody knows how Bond likes his martinis. Here’s how he likes his black pepper: “Cracked, not ground.”

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